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A big question at London conference: What to do about Yemen?

How to battle Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in Yemen has been added to a London conference on Afghanistan. The Fort Hood shooting and Christmas Day airline bombing attempt have made Yemen's extremists a more urgent problem for the US and its antiterror allies.

By Staff writer / January 26, 2010

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, with deputy security adviser John Brennan and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, at a briefing about the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt. That suspect is alleged to have trained in Yemen.

Jason Reed/Reuters/FILE

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Washington

Yemen's emergence as a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity against the West was already raising questions about the scale of any US or Western response. Now, by adding Yemen to the agenda of a Jan. 28 international meeting about the Afghanistan campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has touched off a debate about how best to counter a violent strain of Islam as it surfaces in various Muslim countries.

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The gathering in London of Western leaders and defense ministers is designed in part to show that the big-footprint approach to counterterrorism – as undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan – is proving effective. Appending Yemen to the discussion, some security analysts worry, may signal that the coalition against Islamist extremism may simply continue its current approach, at great cost of blood and treasure.

What is needed instead, they say, is a true accounting of what the West has achieved thus far in its battle against radical Islam.

"We need to be honest enough to come right out and say that much of what we've done so far has been futile at best and counterproductive at worst," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy planning official and intelligence officer. "We should be rethinking much of what we're doing, but instead the response is to flip the page to Yemen and continue the knee-jerk reaction of marching into another failed or nearly failed state."

The point of adding Yemen to the meeting, Prime Minister Brown said earlier this month, is to determine what the conflict-riven country on the Arabian Peninsula needs to combat terrorists, to seek pledges to train Yemeni security forces, and to better coordinate development aid.

The United States has already said it will double military and civilian assistance to Yemen – aid last year was less than $70 million, a far cry from the billions the US spends annually in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama also nixed sending US troops to Yemen, although he did not categorically rule out that option for the future.

A need to coordinate the West's response

The need to coordinate responses to the threat within Yemen is why the Afghanistan-Yemen meeting in London makes sense, some experts say. The US appears to be the main target of Yemen's Al Qaeda-affiliated groups: Suspects in both the Christmas Day airline incident and the Fort Hood shooting last November are alleged to have links to a radical cleric in Yemen. But other Western countries, too, have come under threat from Yemen's extremists.

"There's always a possibility [the Yemen discussion] could siphon off some political attention from Afghanistan, but there are some obvious similarities ... between Afghanistan and Yemen that are at the heart of what the people [at] this meeting are going to discuss," says James Dobbins of the RAND Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center in Arlington, Va. "It makes sense to use the opportunity to address this new priority."

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